We dinghy to shore early the next morning with plans to spend a full day touring the island with no rigid itinerary in mind, just our wandering spirit as guide. The coast highway takes us on a winding circumference of Fort de France, Martinique’s capital and bustling port city. From there the highway narrows and follows the steep west shoreline to the ancient capital city of Sainte Pierre, huddled under towering Mt. Peleé. In 1902, St. Pierre, with a population upwards of 25,000 people, was the heart and soul of Martinique. As many as 30 ships would lie at anchor waiting to offload cargo at the busy seaport. The volcano was assumed to be dormant, but early that year, rumblings and smoke began to be heard and seen. Residents became nervous and prayed at the cathedral for protection and safety. Signs of impending disaster were obvious, but it was an important election year as the socialist party was threatened. The island’s governor assured people that all was well, and they must stay for the election. A few wise folks fled with their families; most stayed.
On May 8th, 1902, Mt. Peleé did not so much erupt as explode. The entire western half of the mountain blew outwards incinerating the town of St. Pierre. In less than two minutes, the town, its structures, upwards of 30,000 people, and every ship in the harbor were obliterated. Virtually nothing was left save one soul buried below ground in the town’s jail and possibly a second who is said to have barely escaped. The last such cataclysm occurred in AD 79 when Mt. Vesuvius erupted.
Joy and I took an hour or so to visit the museum to learn more of this town’s history and people. The atmosphere in the museum is quiet and respectful, and we were humbled, feeling very small in the presence of the memories of all that took place. Today’s village has been rebuilt directly on top the ruins of the old city, and much of the destruction has been retained as a constant reminder of nature’s awesome power. They will never forget that day.
These scenes and our visit to the museum remind us that all these islands are volcanic in origin. Most are dormant, but we need to be constantly on guard. On our way south in 2012, we did not visit Montserrat. You might recall that the southern end of Montserrat was completely destroyed in July 1995 by the eruption of Soufriere volcano, one previously thought to be dormant. Soufriere continues to spew ash and occasional lava to this day.
Heat from the explosion of Mt. Peleé may have reached 1800 degrees F. The cathedral’s giant steel bell was melted and misshapen. Stucco was blasted off stone walls. Every ship in the harbor burned and sank. Those few who moved away to safety were horrified at the loss of loved ones and family. It surely must have been a scene straight out of Dante’s Inferno. Even now, sitting here at the computer I recall what we saw and that memory sends chills up my spine. I vow to be vigilant and to keep Joy and me safe.
Rue Victor Hugo, the town’s main street, rebuilt right on top of the original cobblestone streets with the deep rain gutters and narrow stone sidewalks still in use today.